As we all met at O.R Tambo in Johannesburg, the excitement was tangible. I had known two of the guests, Tony and his son Tom, for some time now but had never before met Nick, apart from seeing some of his images on social media platforms.
Each of us were burdened by an overloaded bursting-at-the-seams camera bag. Even Tom, who was not a regular photographer, was ready and rearing to go. Sadly we were not all booked on the same flight and we had to leave Nick behind as the call for us to board was announced. Never the less our dreams were beginning to materialize and we were as excited as could be.
In true African fashion we were greeted by the absence of any from of transportation from the airport to the lodge. The reason being? Well, it seemed that Nick’s plane was a little faster than ours and the transfer company had already dropped him off at customs and was still en route back to us. 1-0 to Nick . We were crammed onto the back of a safari vehicle with some more South Africans also heading to Ichobezi Lodge. They were not nearly as excited as what we were, that I can promise.
I fondly remember Tom having is GoPro out of the bag before the wheels started rolling towards Kasane. Another reminder of where we were was realized as we entered the “city” of Kasane only to be greeted by a herd of elephants “stealing” water from a leaking pipe, right in town.
This really was Africa, no holds barred.
Customs was quickly dealt with and before we knew it we arrived at the lodge where we were characteristically greeted by real friendly lodge staff and the owner, Ralph. Ralph has been there for the past fifteen years, and if there is one things guests remember of Ichobezi, it is the man with the grey hair and the strong figure. His sincerity and charm struck me and I knew that this was going to be one heck of a great experience.
After a quick drink at the lodge upon arrival the question was proposed to us, “What would you like to do, relax a little?” We all looked at the guy with a look of bewilderment and almost in unison said “Safari Time!!” We dashed to our respective rooms to collect our gear. I almost snapped my ankle on the roots of some big tree close to my room in attempt to get back first. The excitement of being in Chobe definitely got the better of us all!
The photographic boat was fantastic.
It was spacious and comfortable and the design of the mounts for a telephoto lens was genius. As we took our positions and started unzipping our bags, the two 50cc motors chugged to life and we were off.
The first bird we encountered was an unfortunate African Darter. I say unfortunate because I don’t think in the history of Darter’s has anyone one of them had so many photos snapped of it.
Trigger-happy was an understatement!
As to be expected, we all missed the magical moment as it finally had enough and flew away, but we were in Chobe and we were loving it!
In the distance we could see a herd of elephant moving down for a drink. The light was turning gold and we knew this could only end well. I was blown away by how close we could drift to the elephants without unsettling them.
They seemed to accept us and simply kept on drinking.
All of us were beaming and could not believe the magical scene in front of us.
At that, we started heading back to camp and we were all ready for a sterling dinner and some cold beers with new friends.
We were up and sipping on some hot coffee forty-five minutes prior to sunrise.
I think our guide thought us to be mad men and that we were. We were possessed with the spirit of adventure and we could hardly contain our excitement at getting stuck into early morning Chobe action. Our guide Robbie got us real close to a small pod of hippo and introduced us to some of the largest crocodiles I had ever seen.
We then encountered one of the best photographic opportunities of the trip, a sighting pretty much all of us nailed. A large elephant bull was ridding some aquatic vegetation of mud and the swaying of it produced fantastic results.
Although the gimbal-styled heads for the telephoto lenses were fantastic, I encouraged everyone to shoot using the edge of the boat to rest your telephoto lens on. The results were amazing as we were now all of a sudden lower than most of our subjects.
Elephants were freely available throughout our whole trip with the afternoons especially abundant in these large pachyderms.
Upon returning to the lodge we hoofed down breakfast and readied ourselves for our transfer to the Ichingo river boat.
As we stepped onto the houseboat, we knew we had arrived.
This was undoubtedly the way to photograph wildlife on the Chobe River.
We were greeted with ice-cold Tafel Lagers and set out on a three-hour cruise far into the Chobe National Park. Thanks to a great relationship with the parks board, Ichingo is the only houseboat allowed to overnight on the river and within the boundaries of the National Park. This gives a photographer unprecedented photographic opportunities. As we cruised along the deep blue waters we spotted more elephants on the banks, and seeing as the photographic boat was being towed behind us, we readied our gear and off we went.
We had no idea what all lay in store for us.
The two animals my guests wanted to see the most were leopard and lion. Leopard had not been seen for four months so we knew our chances were slim.
Well, the tides had turned and we were in luck.
We spotted some boats gathering in the distance and we knew something was up.
As we got closer and closer I distinguished the familiar figure of a young female leopard lying within the tangled root structure of a large Natal Mahogany. To our relief she was not even a little afraid of the attention she was receiving and kept on stalking a large Nile Monitor firmly wedged within the thick roots.
She eventually gave up on that mission, but not before scaling a dead tree close to the bank and posing for a few minutes. Then, as if by magic she wandered down to the edge of the river and quenched her thirst not fifteen meters from our boat. Absolute bliss. If the trip had ended right there we would have been happy.
Thankfully, it did not and on the way back we were treated with a large elephant bull feeding within the river with a setting sun as a backdrop.
The trip back to where the houseboat had docked was sensational. The reflection of the sunset and the boat cutting though quiet waters I am sure left us all with a lump in our throats.
Dinner was unbelievable on the boat.
The sound of the water next to us, the stars and the great company all added to an unforgettable experience.
Once again we were sipping at our well-brewed coffee well before sunrise.
We had a better idea of what Chobe was about and were excited to see what the day would yield. We started out early in search of any predators close to the banks of the river. We had no luck and decided to search elsewhere.
Within minutes we happened upon a herd of Red Lechwe and due to their skittish nature they did not hang around for too long. We were ready though and Nick and I fired off 12 frames a second with our 1Dx and 400 2.8 combo’s.
Breathtaking results were captured as the Lechwe leaped high into the air and splashed through deep pools of water. Our guides treated us to some nesting White-fronted Bee eaters.
Now let me tell you this.
I absolutely love photographing wildlife but birds, well they are not my strongest subject. These little birds’ dash in and out of nesting chambers and on and off branches so quickly that we were all frustrated within minutes. It seemed the other photographers shared my fate. We set off in search of larger and slower targets.
The birding was top class and several new species were added to all of our lists. We managed to get some lovely photographs of Spur-winged Geese, African Pygmy-geese, Jacana’s and White-faced Duck. African Fish-Eagles proved to be another photographic highlight.
Thanks to the speed and unbelievable quick focusing system of the 1Dx’s, Nick and I managed to get surreal action shots of these eagles flying by the boat. Tony and Tom were equally involved and loved every moment of the action. We ended the day with the clown of the bushveld.
A large troop of baboons was making their way along the edge of the river. They were headed for some large trees in the distance, and once again I could not believe how close we could venture with the photographic boat. They were completely accepting of us and played and carried on as if we did not exist.
Back at the boat dinner was once again out of the park, and the company was even better.
We were all rather exhausted due to some exciting days and we all had an early night.
Sadly this was our last day on the houseboat.
We once again started early and had the same game plan as the previous morning, scan the banks for any signs of predators. Once again we were out of luck regarding those elusive lions. Nevertheless, not much could dampen our spirits and we were off in search of something else.
I spotted an African Fish-eagle struggling to subdue a large catfish on the river edge. We slowly drifted closer but sadly the eagle took off and perched in a tree nearby.
I could hear some Banded Mongooses calling in the undergrowth and before long, a gang of about thirty emerged and were headed straight towards the carcass of the catfish.
This did not sit well with the partner of the first eagle who then swooped down and claimed their prize. The mongooses all started mobbing the aggressive eagle in a rare interaction – something I had never seen before. They kept coming closer and closer to the large eagle who by now had his wings out stretched and was in a full defensive posture. After about ten minutes the gang of mongooses had had enough and slowly moved away in search of something easier to eat. None of them would risk going against the sharp bill and talons of the eagle.
The fish eagle ate for a few minutes and then walked to within ten meters of the boat and started drinking water. We were all jaw-dropped and could not believe we were this close to such a majestic bird of prey.
It drank for almost ten minutes and then flew off. As if things were not already over the top, I spotted a young male lion approaching us from the thickets along the banks. Can you believe it? Unfortunately it was not very relaxed and was reluctant to drink and soon moved off but regardless, it was a lion and we were happy!
We arrived back at the lodge with many stories to share with Ralph and his staff. They were blown away by the quality of the photographs and we were rewarded with ice-cold Tafels, some gin and tonics and a lovely Sauvignon Blanc.
The afternoon safari from the lodge did not yield all that much but simply being out in the amazing wilderness was good enough for us.
Up until now we had had huge success and top-class photographs. The only sad thought that entered our minds was that it was our last afternoon on this magical river of Africa.
We were out about forty-five minutes prior to sunrise hoping to find the young male lion again, or hopefully the rest of the pride.
Luck was not on our side but a rather quiet start to the morning was quickly turned upside down with some great shots of crocodile’s running back into the water after baking in the hot sun. A large buffalo bull wading shoulder deep into the river also delivered some pleasing results.
Then, as if by sheer magic, we were rewarded with the ultimate.
We were about to turn around and head back to the lodge when we were alerted to the presence of none other than the leopardess that entertained us on our second afternoon. She was in exactly the same place, as if she had waited to say goodbye to us.
We were ecstatic and could hardly believe our eyes as she slid down the trunk of the Mahogany and started stalking some nearby guinea fowl. She was filled with youthfull energy as she bounded after them, even scaling a large dead tree rewarding us with some stunning shots.
We kept with her for another hour before losing sight of her as she moved further up the bank and into the forest. This trip could not have ended any better than this. We were all blown away and left in awe.
Back at the lodge we said our goodbyes and readied ourselves for a long trek back home via customs and airports.
Chobe stole a piece of each of us, of that I have no doubt.
Spending time along that stretch of river is something so satisfying, something very difficult to capture in words. It is the experience, it is the wind in your hair and the water on your face, your sun-kissed skin and the smell of the clean air. It is the excitement of the unknown and being caught up in the daily lives of Africa’s most incredible animals.
It’s impossible to single out one aspect and it is just this that makes Chobe unquestionably one of Africa’s bona fide treasures.
Make sure to check out some of the future Wild Eye Chobe Photo Safaris to also experience the Wild Eye magic!
Marlon du Toit
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